Destiny has taken over this MP’s life.
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A date with Destiny: Tom Watson on the best and worst games of 2014

Tom Watson sits through the best and worst video games so you don’t have to.

Video games are fast becoming an unaffordable luxury. If Ed Miliband ever needs a new angle on the “cost-of-living crisis”, he could lead a fair-pricing campaign. He’d be on to an election winner, given that over half of the nation now plays games regularly.

New instalments of franchises dominated the store shelves this year, among them Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – Day Zero Edition, set in the “plausible future” of a world dominated by private military corporations and full of hi-tech weapons. Throw in the price of the game and season pass add-ons and you won’t get much change from £80. Is this value for money? Millions of gamers still think so. I know people who book time off work to play through the whole Call of Duty story in one go.

The big disappointment of the year was Watch Dogs. I believed the hype – this would be like the Grand Theft Auto series with simulated computer-hacking. How foolish I was to jump straight in without reading the reviews! That’s the trouble with buying from a console’s online store. If the game is pap, you can’t take it back to the shop and sell it second-hand to recoup your losses.

Watch Dogs has so many complex side missions and obligatory tasks that it becomes dull; it’s humourlessly derivative of the open world of Grand Theft Auto V. There’s a reason why more than 33 million copies have been sold so far – it’s funny and exciting. Rockstar Games has recently released an updated version for the PS4 and Xbox One that is worth every penny. The attention to detail is impressive, with significantly improved landscapes and new weapons and vehicles. The developers have even added 100 new tracks for the in-car radios.

Titanfall, which was expected to surpass the global leader Call of Duty, was a disappointment. As it was developed by the team behind the original Call of Duty, it had instant loyalty sales. The mechanics allow you to “double-jump” around the landscape and are lovely but the game is devoid of a decent plot. The combat challenges are dull and repetitive. People paid for it, played it for two weeks, then left it completely.

There are, however, some beautiful games in the £20-£40 price range. My choice of the year is Infamous Second Son. It was the first game to show off the souped-up processing power of the new PS4 console. The hero, Delsin, chases his opponents around Seattle and can blow things up with pixel-perfect precision. This game was exclusive to the PS4 and justified my choice to upgrade from the Xbox 360.

The big surprise of the year was Wolfenstein: the New Order. It’s part of the ultimate franchise – the 1992 game was the earliest major first-person shooter. You play William “B J” Blazkowicz, who emerges from a vegetative state in the 1960s to find that the Nazis won the war. The format is so old it doesn’t even have online game play – an impediment in the broadband age. Yet stunning graphics and smooth game mechanics, combined with a gory, humorous plot, produce a memorable game that fully warrants an 18 classification. Keith Vaz missed a trick this year by forgetting to condemn it in the pages of the Daily Mail. If the makers, Bethesda Softworks, can modernise this old classic, we should be in for a treat when they publish a new version of Doom in 2015.

Despite mixed reviews, one game has taken over my life. While Destiny offers little you would consider groundbreaking for a product that reportedly cost £300m to make, it combines a series of game genres into a hugely compelling experience. Bungie, which created Halo, has plundered the best bits of other successful franchises to create an awesome game. Destiny has online play as good as Call of Duty, weaponry as satisfying as Wolfenstein and a touch of the “massively multi-player” feel of World of Warcraft. It’s so good that I broke a golden rule and purchased headphones to assist in online team play. Playing in a team to defeat a larger foe should be completely normal for a socialist MP, yet the sense of inadequacy when you’ve let the side down is huge. Being bettered by younger and more able colleagues is what I play video games to escape from. Plus ça change.

During the recent supposed coup against Ed Miliband, I was planning the downfall of Atheon, the final boss in the “Vault of Glass” raid in Destiny, with a trade union official from Manchester and an English language student from Rome. It’s this experience that has led me to form the view that crime is dropping thanks to video games. If Ed wants an easier life in 2015, maybe he should buy John Mann and Simon Danczuk a PS4 this Christmas. 

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East (Labour)

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times